Clicker Training, What’s Up With That?
If you have spent any amount of time around people that train dogs, you have probably heard the term “clicker training” associated with correction or force free training. But, clicker training sounds kind of funny, doesn’t it? Why does, “clicker training” sound funny? In an article in the New Yorker published in 1936, H. L. Mencken, argues that “k words” are funny. “K, for some occult reason, has always appealed to the oafish risibles of the American plain people, and its presence in the names of many … places has helped to make them joke towns … for example, Kankakee, Kalamazoo, Hoboken, Hohokus, Yonkers, Squeedunk, “Stinktown” and Brooklyn.”
In Neil Simon’s play The Sunshine Boys, Willy Clark (played by Walter Matthau), is lecturing his nephew, Ben about what words are funny, “[W]ords with a k in it are funny. Alka-Seltzer is funny. Chicken is funny. Pickle is funny. All with a k. Ls are not funny. Ms are not funny.”
So here we are identifying ourselves with a word that has two “k” sounds in it, “clicker-training.” It sort of sounds like a kid’s game. “Let’s go outside and play “clicker.” The thing is, the clicker, used properly, is one of the most powerful tools used by behavioral researchers and animal trainers. Scientific research has shown that clicker training is the most effective method of training any animal.
Maybe we should call the clicker something different. What if we call it an “instantaneous, audible, behavioral event marker?” Now, that doesn’t sound so funny, does it? What does the “instantaneous, audible, behavioral event marker” actually do? As explained by Kathy Sdao, a certified applied animal behaviorist who was hired by the U.S. Navy to train dolphins for defense-related open-ocean tasks, the “instantaneous, audible, behavioral event marker:”
1. Pinpoints a behavioral instant; a moment of muscle movement,
2. Informs the animal that the movement met the trainer’s current criterion; that is, his behavior was “enough to earn a reinforcement.
That is pretty precise, behavioral jargon. An “instantaneous, audible, behavioral event marker” trainer (a clicker trainer) clicks a behavior that he or she likes and then gives a reward. It is that simple.
An example of “instantaneous, audible, behavioral event marker” training would be teaching a dog to sit. How can we get a dog to sit without pulling his neck up with a leash and pushing his butt down to the ground? Remember, we use only positive reinforcement – no pulling the leash up while pushing the butt down. We also do not engage in any leash popping. So, what do we do? A way to begin “instantaneous, audible, behavioral event marker” training is to “capture” a behavior. Let’s say we want to teach our dog to sit. As an “instantaneous, audible, behavioral event marker” trainer,” you can just go into a room with the dog and sit there or stand there with our trusty “instantaneous, audible, behavioral event marker” and wait for the dog to sit. Dogs do sit down, eventually. CLICK the moment the butt hits the floor and then give her a reinforcement (usually a tasty treat). You don’t say anything and, not staring at your dog, just wait for another sit. Your dog sits and BAMM, you CLICK and TREAT. If you do that a little while, most dogs figure out that they can train you to give them a treat if they just put their butts on the floor. Your dog will sit there munching on his treat,wondering why he didn’t think of that before. One of the miraculous things about this type of training is that once the dog becomes “clicker savvy,” she will begin offering behaviors to “fool” you into giving her treats.
It is recommended that at the outset of your training journey with your dog that you get some help from a qualified “instantaneous, audible, behavioral event marker” trainer (okay, we’ll just call it clicker training for now on). As an example, that would be me, of course. At first, the most important clicker training learner is you. While it does not take a great deal of time to learn how to use a clicker, it has to be learned. The clicker is not a toy or a gimmick. It is a precise tool that must be used properly. You will be learning the most effective way to train any type of animal.
As you may imagine, a number of trainers say that they are clicker trainers and use force free methods. The fact is, just because you walk around the room with a clicker in one hand and a leash in the other does not make you a clicker trainer. No more than having a license to drive a car makes you a racecar driver or having flipped burgers in a fast food restaurant makes you a chef. (And I have flipped a few burgers in my day.) Karen Pryor Academy graduates (of which, I am one, www.karenpryoracademy.com) have completed an intensive, six month training program refining their skills as totally force free, positive reinforcement, clicker trainers. We are Karen Pryor Academy Certified Training Partners and can lose our certification if we stray from the tenets of the Academy. This is the only program to my knowledge that rigidly adheres to these types of standards. The Karen Pryor Academy will not graduate a student or will withdraw the certification of any graduate if the standards are not met.
One last point (at least for this post) about force free, positive reinforcement, clicker training. If you have ever experienced other dog training programs, you are aware of how stressed a dog can become just prior to and during the training. No creature likes to be punished and traditional training is punishment. You will truly be amazed to be around a dog impatient and enthusiastic to begin a training session. Training is work but wouldn’t you rather work for a carrot than a stick? It is awfully nice to be able to look forward to going to work.
Give gentle dog training a chance. It can’t hurt.
You will become closer to your dog as you have not imagined. Your dog becomes your training partner, not a servant.